April 19, 2024
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April 19, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

The Observant Jew: It’s Perfectly Natural

As I drove past a local middle school, I noticed their event board read “Naturalization Ceremony Today.” For those who don’t know what that is, naturalization is the process by which a foreign national can become a U.S. citizen. There were cars lined up and down the block, and I saw people walking toward the school all dressed up. If they had been Jewish I’d have said they were wearing Shabbos clothes, but it clearly indicated that the ceremony held a great deal of importance in their hearts and minds.

For many, becoming a U.S. citizen involves much effort, including learning the history and laws of their new home. The ceremony caps off their achievement as they take the oath of allegiance to the United States and accept their responsibilities as citizens.

I always imagined these ceremonies took place in some large federal court house in a major metropolitan city, but it made sense to me that a suburban school would be appropriate for people who lived in the area. Though not as august and awe-inspiring as a federal court house might be, I’m sure it didn’t dampen the spirits of the people who finally achieved their dream of becoming U.S. citizens.

As someone born here, I never really gave much thought to the rights and responsibilities of being a citizen. I mean, yes, I pay taxes, I vote, and I registered for Selective Service when I turned 18, but as far as what else is involved, I never reflected on it. I thought it might be interesting to see what those naturalized citizens are agreeing to do: Physical Presence—they have to actually be in the United States for a certain amount of time; Good Moral Character—they must be judged by the immigration officials to be moral individuals, who haven’t committed fraud, lied to get benefits, committed crimes, aren’t habitually intoxicated, and similar items; Attachment to the Constitution—they must agree to serve the United States and renounce allegiance to any other governments or nations. They also must uphold and defend the Constitution and the laws of the United States; English and Civics Exams—they must take tests on the English language and the governmental workings of the United States. All these items are linked to committing themselves to be a part of the American people.

As it was almost Pesach, I made the connection to our leaving Egypt and becoming the Jewish People. We left Egypt and camped in the desert. We were in an uninhabited land, one that belonged to God alone. We were given laws to guide our daily behavior, and swore our allegiance to Hashem and promised to uphold and defend the Torah. If someone becoming a U.S. citizen dresses up to take his oath, it’s no wonder that on Pesach, when we commemorate our becoming citizens of the Am Hashem, the chosen nation of God, we dress up and enhance our Seder with special precious vessels and the finest foods and table settings.

Then I thought about the fact that just as I was born as a citizen, so I probably don’t appreciate the distinction of it as much as one who has struggled for years to attain it. I was born a Jew. Can I honestly say I appreciate the greatness of it? That I have willingly accepted the responsibilities of being a Jew, to study the Torah and laws, to live by them, be bound by them, and guide my moral character by the Torah’s dictates? I daresay that one who converts to Judaism, or one who was raised non-observant and then takes it upon himself to learn all the laws and recognize the stature of what it means to truly be a Jew, appreciates it more than one who was born that way and just takes it for granted.

Perhaps that’s why the Seder is so important. On Pesach night, we are commanded to see ourselves as if we ourselves left Egypt, not just our souls or our ancestors. Rather, we, living in the 21st century, are directed to reflect on what it means to go from being an idolater to a Jew; from one who serves humans to one who serves the Al-mighty Creator. It’s a naturalization ceremony. We have to study and know the lessons of the Exodus, understand the principles of God’s dominion, and speak the language of Torah and Mitzvos. We have to take up permanent residence in this behavior, and carry it on all the time, not just show up to pass a test then go back where we came from. We have to accept upon ourselves the identity and responsibilities of the Jewish People who were redeemed from slavery.

By Rabbi Jonathan Gewirtz

When people weigh the benefits versus the costs of becoming an American citizen, almost overwhelmingly they recognize the value far outweighs the effort, and they work hard for it. When we celebrate the Seder, we should be making that same comparison, and coming to the conclusion that we stand to gain far more than we stand to lose by being naturalized Jews, who have gone through the process of choosing to be chosen.

Though people are now bound by the laws of the United States, they are proud that this status confers on them the rights to freedom and liberty. As Jews, too, our freedom is not hampered by our allegiance to Hashem. On the contrary, that’s what makes it possible. If we take the time to think about this, we will find ourselves much more joyous, much more appreciative of our heritage, and we will realize just how fortunate we are to be celebrating the Seder, naturally.

Jonathan Gewirtz is a prolific inspirational writer whose work has appeared in publications around the world. He also operates JewishSpeechWriter.com, where you can order a custom-made speech for your next special occasion. For more information, or to sign up for or sponsor the Migdal Ohr, his weekly PDF Dvar Torah in English, e-mail [email protected] and put Subscribe or Sponsor in the subject.

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